Of the many forms of systemic racism that have plagued communities of color in the United States, banking is particularly fraught. For generations, Black and Latinx communities have suffered from a lack of access to fair lending, accessible homeownership, and other sources of wealth building, creating large financial gaps with their white counterparts. For many residents in these underbanked communities, it is the banks themselves that are the problem.
To try to address these disparities and counteract a soured reputation, Chase has launched a new program that brings an extra level of banking services and financial guidance to historically underserved populations. Chase Community Centers are a series of new bank branches opening in cities across the country that focus specifically on providing banking resources and financial tools to Black and Latinx communities. The first Community Centers are now open in Harlem, New York; Akron, Ohio; Minneapolis; Dallas; Chicago; New Orleans; Los Angeles; and Detroit. Eventually spreading to a total of 16 locations, the Community Centers build on traditional bank offerings with a wider range of programs and trainings, budget and loan assistance, and dedicated staff to help people access financial tools. The program is the winner of Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation By Design award for Real Estate.
“Our Community Centers should feel like a very different experience, where you’re led with: ‘What are your goals? What are your needs?'” says Ariel Pierre, who leads the Community Center program for Chase. “These locations are less transaction focused, a little bit more relationship based, so that we can really understand the needs of our local residents and ensure that we’re actually delivering on them.”
The services provided in these centers include financial workshops and training programs, guidance on building budgets, tools to increase savings and access loans, and individual guidance on improving credit.
The Community Centers are part of Chase’s recognition that inequality is rampant in the banking system. In October 2020, the bank announced a $30 billion commitment to tackling the racial wealth gap by expanding economic access and opportunities, and setting goals for increasing lending to Black and Latinx communities.
“We know today that there are barriers to financial wellness, especially for the Black and Latinx community. We spent a lot of time and research on understanding what those barriers might be, and how as a financial institution we could help that,” says Pierre. “When we think about structural barriers, COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.”
The Community Centers will continue to roll out in 2021 and 2022. A key part of their operations will be a dedicated community manager who is on hand to help community members identify their financial needs and who will work with other organizations to find relevant programs and resources, both within Chase and through outside groups. “These individuals are often local ambassadors. They’re well-known in their community, and they’re well connected to local businesses or nonprofit organizations,” says Pierre.
Working in collaboration with local organizations is central to the Community Centers, says Pierre. For its location in Akron, Chase partnered with the LeBron James Family Foundation to identify families in need of financial planning, saving strategies, and loan access. Michele Campbell, the foundation’s executive director, says her organization has been playing the role of connector, being the familiar face introducing families to a system that has long felt out of touch.
“The biggest barrier to most of the resources they need is trust,” Campbell says. “It is a scary thing to ask for help, and so many don’t because they don’t even know where to begin. When you’re dealing with something as personal as family finances, it’s so important that families feel welcome and cared for, feel like they will not be judged, and have that sense of trust because that’s when you can really break through. “
Working with partners like the LeBron James Family Foundation is how Chase aims to broaden its reach. “Without them I think it would be so much harder to reach families in need,” Pierre says.
The Community Centers are also trying to stand out. With community- and city-specific motifs, wall art from local artists, and a more open, flexible floor plan, each location is designed to feel more like a neighborhood hub than a wall of ATMs. They include reconfigurable seating areas where financial literacy and training classes can be held, room for business pop-ups, as well as spaces where community members can access free Wi-Fi.
At their core, though, these Community Centers are still bank branches, and the entire program is an effort to grow Chase’s business. Pierre says the effort can be mutually beneficial. “From a financial perspective, Americans that are outside of traditional banking systems often leverage costly alternatives that do not help them in the long run. So we realized that this was not only a gap in [addressing] the racial wealth gap but also a gap in our strategic capabilities,” she says.
And though the Community Center program will only be fully rolled out in 16 cities, Chase is hiring a total of 150 community managers to sprinkle across its other locations and make the same kinds of direct connections with underserved communities. The Community Centers are a new kind of bank branch, and Chase is hoping to become a new kind of bank.
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.